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Choosing a Computer Support Consultant

9

Introduction

Like many other businesses, you have made significant investments in what has become the lifeblood of your operation, your computer systems. You cannot afford to be down for even a minute, from workstations to laptops, servers, software applications, printers, and Internet connections. Finding a reliable professional to keep you running reliably and securely can be a difficult and costly trial-and-error exercise. If you’re lucky, when they leave, they’ve fixed more than they’ve damaged, costing you even more money. Paying for an alleged computer professional’s on-the-job training is not a cost-cutting measure. You want someone who understands your requirements and knows how to meet them.

All of my clients have experienced this agonizing process. It takes days to receive a response to their current IT guy’s request for a fix and another few days before someone shows up to address the problem. When someone arrives, they are frequently inexperienced and leave a trail of problems in their wake. I’m reminded of the old cartoons where the severely nearsighted Mr. Magoo would drive down the road without care, leaving a trail of accidents in his rearview mirror. I’m sure we’ve all had similar experiences with various vendors. Many of them are the largest in their respective industries, and we’re left wondering how they got so big.

To save you the trouble of hiring a Mr. Magoo, I’ve compiled this article with some tips for finding and hiring a reliable, competent, and reasonably priced IT support company.

The Importance of Referrals

Would you ever eat at a C?

I once made the mistake of telling someone I would not enter a restaurant unless it had been recommended. “Oh, don’t be afraid to try something new,” she said. I just smiled and nodded, thinking it wasn’t about trying new things but about not having to pay for something I didn’t like. Similarly, when I need a new dentist or mechanic, I always ask friends, family, and coworkers who they use and if they are satisfied with the service. I strongly advise you to do the same when it comes to getting support for your office computers. Inquire with other business owners in your professional network about their satisfaction with their IT support company. If you are a member of any local professional organizations, ask your fellow club members for recommendations. Trust me when I say the company they recommend will be grateful for the advice.

A hidden camera exposes the filthy conditions of some area restaurant kitchens aired on a Los Angeles local news program in the late 1990s. The grainy video revealed the most egregious violations of standard kitchen hygiene practices, let alone public health code. The images alone were enough to make me sick, so I won’t go into further detail about the infractions to not gross you out. Following the public outcry, restaurants and even food stores were mandated to post the letter grade of their most recent city inspection. Small white placards with big blue A, B, or, God forbid, C became prominently displayed in eatery windows and even gas station mini-marts all over town almost overnight. A D or lower is never seen because those establishments must keep their doors closed until they have cleaned up their act and passed a subsequent inspection. It’s unusual to see anything lower than an A, and even if you did, would you eat there? Most likely not. I need that little blue A, that Department of Public Health referral in the window to reassure me that I won’t spend the night in the bathroom.

Similarly, you should not hire an IT provider who has not been recommended by someone you trust and has a virtual report card that is less than an A. I don’t recommend relying on online reviews from sites like Yelp or Yahoo Local, where vendors can easily plant fake glowing reviews about themselves or discredit their competitors. Another reason I don’t trust them is because there appeared to be an increase in customer product evaluations at various retailers shortly after seeing advertisements offering to pay people to write product reviews. Maybe it was a coincidence, but I can’t imagine going online to Macys.com and writing a review about the underwear I bought last week, whether they were comfortable or not.

Some sites, such as AngiesList.com, where consumers pay an annual fee for the privilege of posting and reading vendor reviews, may be more credible. This should reduce the opportunity for self-promotion and abuse, but I’m not sure it’s worth a monthly fee.

So, unless you have a favorite vendor endorsement website, I would stick to referrals from more traditional sources you know and trust.

Examining the Candidates

If you called the first person recommended to you and it worked out, that’s fantastic! If you have a list of potential vendors, that’s great, but it’s time to narrow your search to organizations that can meet your needs without breaking the bank.

If your budget allows it and your organization is large enough that you believe only IBM Consulting can meet your needs, keep in mind that large IT firms have a lot of overhead. Think about the hourly rates they’ll charge you if they boast a thousand employees, a large customer base, and a big shiny office building.

Instead, look for smaller, local businesses that are eager for your business but have a long history of satisfied customers. You are more likely to have a more personalized experience and more opportunities to negotiate fees, terms, etc. Interview them in the same way that you would a potential full-time employee. Request a list of references and the resume(s) of the technician(s) responsible for your environment. Examine their concerns, and if an IT vendor has posted a customer testimonial on their website, contact that customer for more information. You may discover that things have changed and they are no longer as pleased as they were when the testimonial was written, or that, while the support is excellent, their business and computer systems are Macs, and you require a PC expert. Hopefully, you will discover that they have nothing but praise for it and will continue to recommend it to anyone and everyone. It’s well worth the call. In addition to checking bare references, here are some additional areas to look into to ensure their competence:

Are They Capable of Handling What You Have?

Request that they demonstrate their knowledge of your company’s software and hardware.
Mike, my mechanic, is fantastic. He does an excellent job on my family’s domestic vehicles, but if I ever have a mid-life crisis and decide to buy a German sports car. I’m hoping Mike can service it, but if not, I’ll ask him for a referral to someone who can. Imagine you’ve finally decided on a company you like, but when the tech arrives, he looks at your PC blankly and says, “I’m more of a Mac guy.” With that in mind, please list the software and equipment you expect them to support and review it with them during the interview before you start calling around to see which company gives you the warm fuzzies. Inquire about specific examples of when and how they have improved networks similar to yours. Their response should indicate their expertise with your computer, server, email, financial, or accounting platforms.

Knowledge of Your Industry

Look for companies that specialize in your niche if you have highly specialized systems.

To some extent, the nature of a specific business is incidental to what IT professionals do. What the insurance guy has down the hall is probably what the accounting staffing company is running: HP or Dell hardware running Microsoft Windows, Microsoft Office, QuickBooks, and so on, connected to the Internet via T1, DSL, or cable modem. The staffing firm will use a recruiter-specific software application such as ProSearch. In contrast, the Insurance guy will use Goldmine or a web-based solution such as SalesForce.com as his primary production application. Any competent IT professional can quickly look at these, do some reading, and have enough information to keep them running reliably. Businesses such as retailers or law firms may have custom or legacy (old and out of warranty) software that requires more knowledge to maintain. It can fail in so many ways that only someone with extensive knowledge of the product or its foundations can provide a quick, effective fix in the event of failure. With a proper budget and expertise, the best technicians will configure it with redundancy and failover mechanisms so that when it does break, it is transparent to end users, and there is no loss of productivity.
Suppose you’re using shrink-wrapped software like Windows, Office, or QuickBooks. In that case, it won’t matter as much if the new IT support vendor is unfamiliar with your marketing company as long as he has experience with the software you’re using. (He should be interested in your business, which I will discuss in the following section.) If you are a securities broker with an SDLC card for your DTCC solution, hiring someone with a similar client base would be beneficial. When that line of communication to Wall Street goes down, you don’t want your IT guy scratching his head and searching Google for error codes.

Understanding of Your Requirements

Immediate problems must be resolved, but so must understand what is important to you and make ongoing network improvements to benefit your business.

As you interview different companies, the better prospects will work to understand what is important to you and what you require to get a return on your investment in computer systems. He should inquire, “What is the most difficult challenge you face with your computers?” and “How do you believe things could be more efficient?” “How is your current IT support vendor failing you?”

Does she listen and repeat back what you said to show that she understands your situation, or does she keep pushing her product? Once you’ve decided to hire someone, the consultant should get a sense of your workflow and start making suggestions to improve efficiency and dependability. Security flaws should be identified and mitigated, ongoing issues should be identified and resolved, and your network should eventually run more smoothly. I walked into a new client’s office a few years ago and couldn’t believe what I saw. This was a multi-million dollar retail operation with over 100 field employees and ten corporate office employees using a peer-to-peer network. The “server” was the office manager’s desktop, which housed the company’s documents, such as HR files, marketing materials, billing, invoices, resumes, etc. The other desktop computers could access a massive QuickBooks file (over 500 MB!). QuickBooks was not designed to operate this way, so it frequently crashed. But that wasn’t the first thing that drew my attention when I walked in. What drew my attention was a stack of black accounting ledger books, one for each of the company’s 12 stores. Staff would call a particular voicemail-only number at the end of each shift and leave the sales numbers. The following day, a clerk would listen to up to 90 voicemails and transcribe the numbers into black books for the owner to read later. Talk about ineffective.

We had an online form available to the salons via Microsoft’s SharePoint within a month. They entered the numbers into the form at the end of the shift for the owner’s immediate review in Excel. The new procedure saved the company 15 hours of labor per week!

Your IT consultant should be looking for ways to save you time and money by recommending and implementing efficiencies, similar to what we did for the customer mentioned above. If this hasn’t been your experience with your current provider, it’s time to switch.

Maintaining Business Continuity

You have backups, but do you know how to restore them? How much longer can you be down while trying to get back up?

Support providers should inquire about backups during the initial stages of getting to know your environment, such as before they are even hired. Is it done on tape, external hard drives, or online? Who is accountable for them? Are they examined? It would be best to discuss business continuity once it is established that backups are performed regularly and the budget allows. How up-to-date must your backup data be for you to properly serve your customers? How much downtime can you afford while data is being recovered? How will you get that backed-up data onto computers and get your business back up and running if your computers are destroyed by fire, flood, or theft?

Check that your new IT consultant understands the answers to these questions and has the expertise to appropriately respond to an emergency to keep you running or get you back up and running by their service level agreement.

Scalability

If you plan to expand, your IT provider should have the knowledge and resources to build a computer infrastructure to keep up with you.

What are your company’s current growth projections? Will you downsize, stay the same, or become the 800-pound gorilla in your industry? Of course, a new IT consultant will be less enthusiastic about assisting you in downsizing because it implies a decrease in income for them as your need for them decreases. However, if you intend to stay the same or grow, your service provider should be able to help and keep up.

I was laid off during the late 2000/early 2001 economic downturn, also known as the “dot-bomb” era, as business took a dive and my employer went into survival mode. This successful organization went from 75 to 5 employees seemingly overnight. I was hired to support their computers, but I was not consulted when they relocated to a smaller office. Certain critical aspects of the relocation, such as the Internet connection, were overlooked. As a staffing firm, the Internet was a crucial tool for finding candidates for their clients, sending and receiving emails, posting positions to their internally hosted job board, and much more. The existing Internet service was not transferred to the new office by anyone at the company. Even if they had, no one had the knowledge to ensure that the website and email would continue functioning after the servers were relocated and returned online. They died in the water.

Today, you can get an Internet connection in a matter of days. Still, this incident occurred when DSL providers oversold their services via very creative TV advertising campaigns (remember SBC’s “Web Hog” commercials?), and new installations would take six weeks. So, in a panic, they called me, and I assisted them in obtaining a temporary and prolonged dial-up Internet connection to at least get email flowing again.
Whether your company is expanding or contracting, your IT guy must know how to set up a new office or relocate an existing one so all your IT services can follow. Many IT departments serve as the de facto Facilities Department for their organizations, so they may be able to assist you in ensuring that your other utilities, such as power and telephone, are correctly set up as well. If this is an additional office, the level of communication required between the computer systems must be determined in advance. Will employees at the new location need access to files stored on servers at the old site? When the server is at location 1, how will it connect to the network at location 2? Is a new server needed, or will a site-to-site VPN connection suffice? These are issues a good IT service provider should be aware of and address.

In the IT Community, you are well-liked.

The world’s Mr. Magoos establish reputations that begin to precede them. Based on personal experiences, I’ve received resumes from people I would never hire. Sometimes, the outlines were so riddled with errors that I refused to let the sender near one of my computers. On the other hand, some IT professionals are so well-liked that they are never out of work because of their solid reputations for being both technically competent and pleasant to be around. IT vendors can build comparable reputations through the hard work of their employees. As previously stated, you should be able to obtain references from the companies you are considering hiring and copies of the resumes of the technicians assigned to look after your computers.

Another way to demonstrate their worth is through their contributions to the IT community. I have yet to meet a computer professional who is entirely knowledgeable about computers. Some have an incredible memory and can recall every detail of esoteric application configurations from 5 years ago. Others know a lot but rely on the IT community for assistance with more complex issues, such as partnerships and online support forums. Hopefully, someone else has had the same problem and has posted a solution online. Similarly, when I overcome a challenge that others are still struggling with, I try to share the solution that worked for me.

A simple Google or Bing search of the name of the company you’re considering will return contributions the owner or her technicians have made to their community through technical articles or blog posts. You may also discover that they are members of industry associations to improve the service level they provide to their customers or that they have received awards or other honors.

Hello there, Pardner.

The vendor you select should have formal relationships with the manufacturers of the products they sell and support. One of the many reasons Microsoft is such a large and powerful company is the importance they place on its partners. As a technician, I know that if I get stuck, I can call for highly skilled support for any Microsoft product. Microsoft has a team of professionals worldwide for each product to help resolve the situation and ensure my customer is satisfied. If my customer’s email server is down and I have exhausted all other methods of resolving the problem, I know I can call Microsoft, and a team of engineers will work with me 24 hours a day until it is fixed. Thanks to my partnership level with them as a Small Business Specialist, they are one of the few companies willing to do so. This is not an easy designation; a prospective partner must pass tests and meet other stringent requirements. The more standards are met, the higher the partnership level and the associated benefits.

If your company uses Microsoft products, ensure that the people you hire to support you have some Microsoft partnership. Similarly, Sun Microsystems, Oracle, Trend Micro, and others. You will significantly benefit from their affiliation with these companies.

They will know more about the product and be more interested in it, resulting in a long-term benefit for you through more consistent performance. It may also result in lower prices when it comes time to upgrade or renew your license.

Non-Disclosure Contract

When you entrust someone with the keys to your kingdom, ensure they don’t make copies to distribute to others.

Almost every company has a valuable customer contact database that has grown over time. It may include current and former customers and sales leads that will hopefully be followed up on one day. It takes years of hard work to create a list like this that adds to our company’s overall value. You would never want to lose or let this resource go to a competitor. To avoid being lost or corrupted, it should be backed up nightly with your other data. Anyone with access, such as an IT provider, should sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) to prevent it from falling into enemy hands. This also applies to your employees, particularly those in sales who would benefit from your hard-earned Rolodex if they left to start their firm or worked for a competitor. You can easily find customizable boilerplate NDAs on the internet, or email me, and I will gladly provide you with one.

Contracts: The Good and the Bad

I’m grateful that cable TV, regular phone service, and gas and power companies don’t require you to sign a contract. Of course, they have monopolies, so why would they? But I’m sure they would if they could – they’d ding you if you moved and had to cancel your contract, then they’d sound the person who bought your house with a sign-up fee. Fortunately, they don’t do that, or at least not in my neck of the woods. There appears to be plenty of cellular competition, but an implied conspiracy suggests they are in cahoots with their outrageous early termination fees of more than $300. The benefit to the competition is that they know that when your contract expires, you will be a free agent to work with whomever you want, so they better be Johnny On the Spot when problems arise. I notice a significant difference in service quality between my cable provider, which also provides Internet service for my business (no contract and no cable competition), and my cellular carrier (contract with competition). The service I receive from the latter is far superior, and I gladly recommend them to others. What about the cable company? Not at all.

IT support providers face stiff competition, and most will try to lock you into a contract to keep you. However, this is not always a bad thing. The vendor benefits from predictable cash flow and some assurance that, no matter how pleased you made them today, they will be less likely to hire someone else to run an enticing promotion. Furthermore, the vendor wishes to continue pleasing you by exceeding your expectations. The more efficiently your machines operate, the less downtime you have, the less time you have to worry about, and the more time you have to focus on growing your business.

Similarly, the better your equipment runs, the more money they save by not having to call someone out to fix it. It’s a win-win situation for everyone. In this case, contracts can benefit everyone, but make sure there is an out clause so that you are not held hostage by a company that provides poor service.

So, what is the point of the contract if either party can leave at any time? To set expectations, say: I will perform this service for you, and you will pay me x. You may cancel the contract if I fail to provide the requested service. If you do not pay me, I will suspend service until I am paid, and so on.

As I previously stated, I am writing this during an economic decline, and things are difficult everywhere. I’ve allowed several clients to defer payment because I know their business is slow, and they’re also waiting on income from their clients. They have a history of paying their bills, and we all hope the economy will improve. But, more importantly, their success is my success, and their inability to conduct business and pay me will jeopardize their ability to do so. This personal touch, I believe, will help many companies survive this challenging economic climate.

Even if your contract specifies 15, 30, or 90 terms, the personal relationship you build with your vendor should allow flexibility in this area as circumstances dictate.

SOWs and SLAs

Establish expectations for ongoing support as well as any special projects in writing.

The Service Level Agreement (SLA), as the name implies, establishes the level of service that the vendor is expected to provide and that the customer expects to receive. It can be issued and signed independently or as part of a contract. Computers, servers, software, networks, and ancillary equipment are examples of hardware. The software could, for example, include the operating system and production applications such as Exchange (email server) on the server side and Outlook (email client) on the desktop side.

The SLA should also specify how quickly you expect the vendor to respond when you notify them of a problem. Their response time may range from 1 hour for the most critical issues (server down) to 4 hours depending on the severity level (1 of 5 printers has a paper jam).

Any work performed on your computer systems not defined in the contract’s SLA should be clearly described in a Statement of Work (SOW) to establish expectations on both ends. The SOW will summarize the problem or need, the solution, the timeline, deliverables, the result, and the costs.

Suppose you have been sold a firewall to control employee web surfing, viruses, and spam. In that case, the statement of work will help both parties understand the project’s scope and agree when the consultant has appropriately completed the project and accepted it by you. The last thing you want is for the consultant to tell you that he has installed an Internet filter while your employees continue to update Facebook on company time, and you have more spam in your Inbox than ever before.

Summary: This article’s sole purpose has been to provide you with some guidelines for choosing a computer consulting company that will ultimately keep you and your computers happy. Any sophisticated system will always have issues, especially as changes are made. Still, overall your systems should run reliably when correctly cared for, with no nagging, lingering problems that never seem to get fixed. I’ve worked in a few companies where IT was prioritized. I can count them on the one hand; it was a technology company with a commercial website, so there was naturally a lot of emphasis on the quality of the network, servers, workstations, and so on, as well as the technicians who looked after them. Unfortunately, due to budget constraints or misplaced priorities, IT is often neglected; it is a significant emergency when it fails. The email server fails, and everyone runs around like a headless chicken, begging for help. Untold business is being lost as a result of this massive workplace distraction. Productivity suffers as the crisis consumes the day, which is consumed by meetings to find solutions, workarounds, or commiserate, with no one able to do his or her job. Customers are given excuses because “the system is down again,” and the organization appears in disarray.

Only a computer professional with training and experience in the software and hardware you use has the necessary skill set to keep everything running smoothly.

If you haven’t had time to read the entire article, here are a few quick questions to consider when looking for a company or individual to care for your business computers:

1. Could you supply a list of customer references?
2. Do you have the necessary certifications to support my hardware and software?
3. Do you have a Service Level Agreement in writing?
4. Do you have any other clients in my field? (If so, include them in the list of references.)
5. Is your work wholly guaranteed?
6. Do you provide monthly support maintenance contracts?
7. Do you provide a reduced hourly rate for maintenance agreement customers?
8. What is your guaranteed response time in an emergency?
9. How do you protect my data, and can you provide an example of how you recovered data for a previous client?
10. How quickly can you get my business systems up and running in an emergency?

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